Despite pledges at his closed-door September 23 presidential inauguration to defend and expand civil rights, 66-year-old Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s first evening after he took Belarus’ presidential oath of office was marked by a more familiar activity: baton-carrying riot police cracking down on protesters
The Belarusian Interior Ministry has not yet released information about the total number of detentions or individuals wounded during these measures in Minsk and the major regional towns of Brest, Hrodna, Salihorsk, Vitebsk, and Zhodzina, among other locations. A spokeswoman for the Minsk city police, however, told the state news agency BelTA that “more than 10” people had been detained in the Belarusian capital, the focus point of the protests.
The human-rights organization Vesna claims that at least 160 people were detained nationwide.
As riot police moved into Minsk’s Hero City area, a flash point for August 9 protests against Lukashenka’s official win at Belarus’ presidential polls, protesters fled to hide in nearby cafes and apartment buildings’ courtyards, commented protester Andrey Krasnikou, who witnessed the scene. Other demonstrators reportedly sought shelter in the apartments of strangers, said Current Time Minsk correspondent Raman Vasyukovich.
Dodging the police proved difficult for one car on Minsk's Dzerzhinsky Avenue, where, for unclear reasons, dozens of law enforcement personnel savagely attacked the vehicle. The driver was pushed down onto the street. Reports that he was taken away in an ambulance could not be confirmed.
Videos and photos posted on Belarusian Telegram channels further suggest that protesters sustained injuries, including bloody head wounds, from clashes with riot police.
Minsk police, however, denied that tear gas, weapons, or stun grenades had been used in breaking up the protests, RIA Novosti reported. A photo taken by the independent TUT.by news service in Minsk, though, showed a helmeted man in jeans holding what appeared to be a tear gas gun. Belarusian police frequently make use of male civilians and plainclothes officers without badges to roundup protesters.
Water cannons also were used on September 23 to disperse protesters – a tactic not previously seen in Belarus’ election protests, according to Maksim Bogretsov, a member of the Coordination Council of government critics who argue that Lukashenka’s re-election was fraudulent.
One Telegram video displayed a lone Minsk protester, holding Belarus' historical, red-and-white flag over his head, sprinting down a street after a water cannon spraying orange water.
Conceivably to discourage re-groupings of these protesters, street lights were switched off in the Hero City district as darkness fell. In a sign of support for demonstrators, many passing cars honked their horns.
While the turnout in Minsk appeared scattered and far lower than the thousands who have attended recent weekend protests, these September 23 demonstrations illustrate why Lukashenka wanted to conceal his inauguration, commented political analysts.
At one gathering in downtown Minsk, a row of protesters, shouting "Go away, you and your OMON (riot police)!", blocked three lanes of traffic on a main thoroughfare.
If the Belarusian government had announced the inauguration ahead of time, complete with invitations to foreign dignitaries and media, Lukashenka would have risked further focusing international attention on how police respond to protests against his rule, underlined Pavel Usov, director of Warsaw’s Center for Political Analysis and Prognosis.
“Lukashenka did not have a big choice: Either conduct the inauguration in secret or count on an enormous protest and clashes that show the real picture,” Usov said.
“It was a choice between two evils, and he chose the lesser evil,” agreed Belarusian political scientist Valer Karbalevich.
Opposition leaders, including former presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, whom the Coordination Council believes is the true winner of Belarus’ August 9 presidential election, have denounced Lukashenka’s inauguration as farcical and a disgrace.
But condemnation of the ceremony was far from universal. One older woman, walking with a companion past a group of young, poster-carrying protesters in downtown Minsk, yelled that they were “corrupt beasts,” and showed her fist to a TUT.by camera.
Belarusian state media generally ignored the protests and kept their focus squarely on the inauguration and Lukashenka’s promise to reform the constitution, create a “genuine” multi-party system, and revamp the electoral code and local government.
His hopes to visit next year Russia’s Far Eastern region, including the Vostochny (Eastern) spaceport project where Belarusian workers are employed, ranked a close second.
Yet despite such coverage, Karbalevich maintained that the secret inauguration demonstrates that Lukashenka “perfectly understands the reality in which he’s living.”
“Otherwise, he wouldn’t have hidden himself.”
Тhe U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee nearly echoed that sentiment word for word. The Republican-Party-led Committee tweeted on September 23 that Lukashenka’s secret inauguration “only further proves that he has lost all legitimacy as a leader. He is not the president of #Belarus and he must step down.”
A spokesperson from the U.S. State Department commented to RFE/RL that, given election fraud, "The United States cannot consider Alyaksandr Lukashenka the legitimately elected leader of Belarus."
Belarusian opposition members appear more focused on the European Union than the U.S., however.
Former Belarusian ambassador Paval Latushka, a self-exiled leader of the Coordination Council, told Current Time that he has discussed the inauguration with the foreign ministers of Sweden, Poland, Lithuania, “and a series of other European states.” These individuals made clear, he said, that their countries do not view Lukashenka as Belarus’ legitimate leader.
The European Union itself has categorically rejected recognizing Lukashenka as Belarus' elected leader. Although a first attempt at EU sanctions against Belarus for election fraud and police violence failed this week, efforts may resume at a meeting of heads of state from the EU’s 27 member countries next week, reported Current Time Brussels correspondent Gregory Zhygalov.
But such positions likely “do not interest” Lukashenka now, commented Karbalevich. Neither the U.S. nor the EU has ever recognized any of Lukashenka’s elections since 1994 as free and fair. The positions of Western powers on this latest vote already are clear to him, the analyst said.
Lukashenka, who alleges that Belarus narrowly escaped a Western-backed “color revolution” to remove him from power, probably would agree.
“Unprecedented outside pressure only toughened us, made us more decisive and uncompromising in the struggle for our own,” he told inauguration guests. “We don’t need somebody else.”